Inspiring justice

In a recent article in The Telegraph, Josephine Fairley chimes in on whether it’s positive or patronising to refer to disabled people as ‘inspiring’ in advertising or news – it’s progress, she says. These ‘inspiring’ images typically feature someone like a cute child or a successful Paralympian with prosthetic limbs or in a manual wheelchair or walking, running or playing basketball. That is, regular, mostly mundane activities. They are often accompanied with a trite quotation like ‘your excuse is invalid’ or ‘the only disability in life is a bad attitude’.

Inspiration porn was a phrase used by much beloved Australian comedian and disabled (she preferred crip) activist Stella Young. Oddly, she is barely mentioned in the article. On 24 February, it was Stella’s birthday, so I think it’s important to remember her legacy. She was a tireless advocate for disability rights, a prolific writer and had a larger-than-life personality. Sadly, Stella is no longer with us; she passed away in December but will never be forgotten. Stella stated that ‘the intent of… inspiration porn [is] so that non-disabled people can put their worries into perspective. So they can go, “Oh well if that kid who doesn’t have any legs can smile while he’s having an awesome time, I should never, EVER feel bad about my life.”’

The point is that inspiration porn does not represent crips, but objectifies and exceptionalises them for the gratification of others. Inspiration porn objectifies crips like pornography objectifies women and men get instant gratification. It certainly isn’t there to empower women or to offer a positive alternative to ignoring them altogether.

In the past, Fairley says, disabled people were written off or ‘brushed under the carpet or 100 years ago, shut… away where they couldn’t disturb us’. Now, disabled people are ‘beamed around the world’ in positive, powerful images of success and skill.

I want to make it clear that I’m sure Fairley means well. In a superficial way, showing images of disabled people doing great things is more positive than pitying them or ignoring them altogether. That’s all fine and good, but her article is a perfect example of missing the point. Objectifying disabled people, irrespective of whether it is framed as positive or ‘inspiring’, is objectification all the same. If disabled people aren’t doing something ‘inspiring’, they are seen to be victims and objects of pity.

Is it not the case that advertisers are replacing one stereotype with another? Does it have to be ‘disabled people are sad and sorry victims’ or ‘amazing and inspirational’? Is there no middle ground? Would it be so surprising to know that disabled people do what everyone else does, except they have to adapt to their disability and the environment that creates barriers for them?

Fairley argues that her family ‘does know a bit about this’ because her brother-in-law ‘has been in a wheelchair for his entire adult life’. In other words, she sees herself as sufficiently qualified to understand a topic based on knowing a couple of disabled people. That’s like saying, ‘my friend is black and I don’t understand why they have an issue with casual racism’.

Stella Young was disabled, and I’ve been in a wheelchair my entire adult, teenage and child life! Actually, no. Let’s not be frightened of our identities: I’m disabled. No, stuff it, let’s not cloak it with political correctness – I’m a cripple. Not a person with a disability, differently abled or physically challenged, but a crip. Not just a bit of a crip either, but a wheelchair-using, ventilator-dependent, disabled-from-birth C R I P. (For the record, I don’t believe that you have to be disabled to join the debate, but it gives you direct exposure to the perceptions and prejudices of others towards you.)

Back to Fairley’s brother-in-law. Fairley says that he is ‘not an inspiration because he’s disabled; he’s an inspiration full stop’. Why? Because he likes to dance at night clubs and ‘has a harem of adoring women admirers like no man I’ve ever met’.

Let’s take a moment to break down the implications of that statement. First, use of the word ‘harem’ is, at best, unfortunate, and at worst, downright demeaning to women. Particularly given the article is published in the ‘Women, Life’ section of The Telegraph. Second, a lot of people like dancing – it’s not particularity inspirational. Third, having a lot of friends is pretty unremarkable. Sure, it’s lovely to have a large group of friends, but it’s not exceptional. But Fairley is implying that disability is such a tragedy, having friends is inspirational.

I know how it feels when people set such low standards for you. When I was eleven, my friend was around at my house when a guest came over. Later, said guest approached my friend and said, ‘Thank you for visiting Ryan.’ My friend looked confused and said to me, ‘What’s she talking about?’

At eleven years old, I was ill-equipped to articulate the precise implications of our guest’s statement: that my life was apparently so tragic that my friend was just pretending to be my friend. So no, Fairley’s brother-in-law is not an inspiration. I’m sure he’s just a nice guy, so people probably want to be his friend.

Fairley ends her article with a nugget of wisdom, about ‘the most extraordinary human quality [of] simply being able to adapt’. I have no doubt that being involved in a car accident, for example, is traumatic and requires a lot of adaptation, but that statement is downright insulting. I for one am not provided with the resources to make all the adaptations required – independent living is a pipe dream for me.

The truth is, I am systemically disadvantaged because I was born disabled. It wasn’t acquired in a car accident. If it had been, I would be covered by the Transport Accident Commission (TAC). I require twenty-four-hour support for personal care, around half of which is provided by my mother, who is over sixty. The other half is covered by my current funding package. If I had TAC funding, all hours would be covered, making independent living a possibility.

I am ventilator dependent, which limits my accommodation options drastically. I was in a supported accommodation facility for respite a while back, where I was rendered unconscious for about a minute from a simple problem with my ventilator. It could have been easily corrected if the facility had not tried to cut corners by employing casual staff with minimal training. By a stroke of luck, an experienced staff member was nearby to save my life. It was terrifying.

Ooops, now I’m complaining! If we crips complain, it gives people a sense of tragedy, which means that anything we do, even dance, is so very inspirational.

According to Fairley and her ilk, if I stop ‘weeping and wailing’ and get on with it, my future accommodation problems will disappear. But I’m sorry to say, a lot of things are going to have to change for that to happen, not just stereotypes.

The same people who objectify crips also benefit from feeling inspired by us. That’s not to our benefit. That’s the problem with inspiration porn: it blinds society to real, tangible injustice and simply exchanges one stereotype – the pitiful victim – for another – the inspiring hero.

Crips don’t need stereotypes. Instead, we need concrete solutions to problems like inequality, injustice and discrimination. These stereotypes turn a complex topic into a bunch of trite slogans. I will celebrate the day they are shredded, thrown into the dustbin of history and incinerated.

Ryan Struk

Ryan Struk is a freelance writer with a BA in International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies.

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  1. Thanks for this Ryan. I very much liked this line: “Ooops, now I’m complaining! If we crips complain, it gives people a sense of tragedy, which means that anything we do, even dance, is so very inspirational”.
    I wonder too about the effect on crips generally of the deification of the ‘inspirational’ crips. Is there another excuse for discrimination built in there? An expectation that every crip should be as inspirational as a wheelchair athlete etc etc?

    And agreed that knowing,or even caring for someone with a disability, is not the same as being that person. As a father of a child with a disability, I rapidly learned that is she who tells me how to define the experience and the life, not me that tells her. It’s a humbling experience, to say the least.

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